The difference between pain and suffering

Like “peanut butter and jelly” or”cookies and milk,” the concepts of “pain and suffering” just sort of go together in my vocabulary and in my mind. As a parent of a child with special needs, I have found great relief in exploring the difference between the two.

During a talk at my local meditation center a couple of years ago, a teacher offered a different perspective. She asked us to imagine having a broken arm. The physical sensation, the actual messages the nerves sent to our brain–that is the pain. Then she asked us to imagine what might race through our minds when we realized our arm was broken–the frustration at being inconvenienced (“How will I carry my groceries, drive my car, get dressed, shower?), the fear of not being able to meet my own or others’ expectations (“How will I pay my bills if I can’t do my job?” or “Who’s going to help me with the kids?”) or the anger at being injured (“How could I be so stupid to climb on that ladder?”) Those emotions that I experience because I assume that life should be free of broken arms, that is the suffering.

In her essay “Welcome to Holland,” Emily Perl Kingsley captures the way I can sometimes add suffering to my pain in my experience of parents of children with special needs. To be sure, my pain is real. But most of my frustration, anger, sadness and fear doesn’t come from my pain; it comes from the suffering that I add to that pain.

This suffering that I add to the pain nearly always stems from my attachment to my “story:” the narrative that I created many years ago for what my life would be like–one free of doctors, diagnoses, labels, lawyers, therapists, IEPs, and TEAM meetings.

Something very interesting happens when I let go of that story. When I let myself simply just be here now with things exactly as they exist, without judgement, without comparing, without labeling–when I let go of the suffering. When I discern the difference between my pain and my suffering, I can be fully present for the pain, and I find myself realizing that it’s not as painful as I thought. It’s not unbearable. It’s actually sometimes not even painful.

In the moment that I write this, my child is at a school he loves, there’s a hot cup of coffee near my hand, and the sun is shining for the first time in a week. I can allow myself to see that, or I can focus on the stacks of insurance paperwork to be completed, the six doctor referrals I need to renew, and the education evaluator who hasn’t called back.

Letting go of the story and the suffering doesn’t mean denying the pain. For me, letting go of the suffering simply allows me to be more present to the moments of joy and beauty that do exist if I let myself see them.

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About Cristin L.

Earthling, pilgrim, peace warrior and special needs parent
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